The Rock Star’s Guide to Eating, Praying, and Loving in the High Security State of Israel
Why Justin Bieber, Elton John, Madonna, and, yes, Alicia Keys, love to play Tel Aviv—and why Israel loves them back
Like the Molly Bloom: Tel Aviv’s only bona fide Irish pub is a frequent stop for visiting luminaries. This was the case one balmy August evening in 2009. The few tables outside were dense with young Israelis blowing smoke from their Marlboro Lights into the salty air drifting from the Mediterranean, lying drowsily a block away. Inside, British rock band The Kaiser Chiefs was downing ales, exchanging anecdotes with members of the Canadian punk-pop group Simple Plan, and chatting up the occasional fan. Deeper inside the room, leaning against a green wall, was Stephanie Germanotta, otherwise known as Lady Gaga but on that night just a shy and plainly dressed young woman talking about art with her fellow musicians.
The rest of the usual stops on the celebrity route are just as unassuming: Grab a sambousak—a crescent-shaped pastry stuffed with salty cheese—at Aboulafia, a legendary bakery on the border of Tel Aviv and Jaffa; take a stroll in the old port of Jaffa; have dinner somewhere not far from the beach, like The Container, a trendy spot in Jaffa favored by Bono, or Stefan Brown, a low-key eatery concealed in an old building’s courtyard in the south of Tel Aviv and beloved by Madonna; go dancing somewhere like the Radio EPGB, a subterranean club that looks and feels like Berlin; and end the night strolling for snacks along Rothschild or any of the other boulevards criss-crossing the city.
For visiting celebrities, however, the point is not so much where to go but with whom, and here, too, Israel has worked out a routine. Once they make it to their club of choice, Kesler said, the treasured guests are likely to come across a pleasant surprise: All those present are themselves celebrities. Israel, Kesler explained, is small enough, and its entertainment industry enough of a kibbutz-like enterprise, for all the nation’s most prominent actors, musicians, models, DJs, rappers, and artists to be in attendance whenever a foreign celebrity descends. “It’s like they’re drafting them to the army,” Kessler said, “all of our local celebrities get a call from the producer telling them which club to go to and when. In London, no one cares when a famous person steps into a bar. Here, a famous person arrives and all the local famous people are there to greet him.” Kesler recently wrote a humorous essay about having to swat away clusters of local big shots in an effort to say hello to her idol, music producer Mark Ronson, who was drinking in a trendy Tel Aviv dive a few summers back. The Israelis, Kelser noted, were all on best behavior; aware of what fame does to an ordinary person’s life—the shrieks, the lack of privacy—they were the best crowd a famous person could wish to have in his or her surroundings.
Not, of course, that visiting Israel is all about the beach or the clubs. Inevitably, the visiting celebrities find themselves Jerusalem-bound, and when they do, it’s men like Gadi whose job it is to make the visit to the world’s holiest city as sweet and condensed as possible. Working for one of Israel’s largest PR shops, Gadi is in his early 30s with a mouth perennially occupied by cigarettes and bad words. “Jerusalem,” he said, “is like fucking Disneyland. I was in Disney in the ’80s, and it’s exactly the same thing. You get on a bus early in the morning, you drive for a bit, you get off, and then you have this small place where everything is expensive but there’s some attraction every one hundred meters. They come here, they do the churches, they see the mosque, they visit the Kotel, they go to Yad Vashem, and this is before they even eat lunch. These celebrities only come here for a day or two, so it’s great for them to have a place like this.”
The city’s holy sites, Gadi said, render even the most flamboyant rock star mute. “Gaga was here,” he said, “and we took her to where the crucifixion happened, and it was like ‘Lady Gaga, meet Sir Jesus.’ Any star, even the biggest, just stands quietly and watches, and I think they like it that way. It puts things in proportion.”
In many ways, Israeli musical tastes perfectly mimic global trends. Last year, for example, the biggest-selling concert tours were Roger Waters, Van Halen, Madonna, and other rock behemoths, the same artists that grace most Israeli playlists. But Israel’s different in one important respect: There, artists like Elton John or Rod Stewart or Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson aren’t nostalgia acts but bona fide rock gods, as luminous as they had been at their peak, some decades ago.
Ben Shalev, a rock critic for Haaretz, described the Israeli reverence for rock’s aged practitioners by conjuring an imaginary young rock fan. “The indecision is killing him: Elton John or Rod Stewart?” Shalev wrote. “He’s 25, a student, with no steady income, and he can’t afford to see more than one concert this summer. He has to decide which uncle he loves more. And that’s not easy. On the one hand, he digs uncle Rod’s latest albums, the ones with the covers of show tunes from the 1930s. On the other hand, he grew up on Uncle Elton. In 1993, when the man who claimed Jesus was gay played in Hayarkon Park in Tel Aviv, he was too little, only 8 years old. His older brother told him that the concert was amazing, and ever since he’s been praying that he, too, would one day have a chance to hear a live rendition of ‘Your Song.’ And here comes that very opportunity. But why so close to Rod Stewart’s concert? He hums ‘I Am Sailing’ to himself and gets goosebumps.”
The ‘Color Purple’ author showed more than just naivete in penning an open letter to the pop star. She also showed ignorance.